WHEN the campaign to establish Colchester’s Women’s Refuge gathered momentum in the mid-Seventies, the opinion writer at a local paper was dismissive.

The indignant columnist at the Colchester Express wrote: “There can’t be that many women fleeing brutal, uncontrollable husbands during a week.

“The establishment of a refuge could, in the passion of a matrimonial upset, provide a convenient and comfortable bolt hole for wives who really know physical assault is unlikely.”

The county’s social services department was equally unconvinced, claiming the need for accommodation for battered wives in the Colchester area was minimal. The police too were reluctant to get involved.

Such were the barriers pioneering women faced as they fought for social change, seeking public recognition that domestic violence was unacceptable and campaigning for protection for its victims.

The fascinating story of the refuge movement and its role in the struggle for gender equality in Britain has now been recorded, and is the focus of a new exhibition You Can’t Beat a Woman at the Minories in Colchester.

Thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, Dr June Freeman, a founder member of Colchester refuge, spent two years overseeing the oral history project which tells the history of the refuges in the founding women’s own words.

Interviewers recorded the memories of 35 women who fought against the dismissive attitudes of the Seventies and Eighties to lift the lid on domestic violence.

June worked with Ravi Thiara, focusing on the campaign to change attitudes to domestic violence in white British and British Asian communities.

Chelmsford Weekly News:

Dr June Freeman

Author, researcher and lecturer June said: “Many of the pioneers of the refuge movement are now in their sixties and seventies, with some in their eighties.

“If we were to capture the story of the early days of the refuge campaign from the point of view of the women who instigated and were involved in it, we needed to act immediately.

“Refuges are now an accepted feature of the social landscape. The dismissive condescension of the Seventies belongs to a bygone age.

“But, with many refuges heavily dependent on central and local government funding, government policies threaten both the stability and culture of refuges, which were established as organisations run by women for women.”

The project covers eight refuges in East Anglia which opened between 1974 and 1981 and a refuge for Asian women in Newham, East London.

The challenge for campaigners seeking to establish a refuge was to provide hard evidence of the need for it.

A turning point came when the Colchester refuge group liaised with solicitors to establish how often violence was discussed in their dealings with matrimonial cases.

The group took their story to the Gazette which reported, in November 1976, that “400 wives need refuge from violent husbands”.

The article revealed, in the past year, social workers had dealt with “at least 20 cases of severely beaten women”.

It went on: “Two women had broken jaws, two had broken noses, one suffered brain damage, two suffered attempted strangulation and one had 38 stitches in her face.”

The Colchester group also gathered information about women murdered by a husband or partner, uncovering staggering evidence that the criminal justice system was failing to protect them.

In one case, a man who had battered his mistress with the leg of an iron bedstead after she taunted him about his sexual prowess had his sentence halved to four years because the appeal judge felt he had been subjected to “very real provocation”.

Another man tried for strangling his wife was cleared of murder after claiming she was always complaining and had shouted at him with a “vicious look on her face.”

Sentencing him for manslaughter, the judge said he had never come across a case where anyone had endured so much provocation and gave him just three years on probation.

Chelmsford Weekly News:

Volunteers decorate the house which was to become Colchester refuge in a 1977 newspaper cutting

As the campaigning women uncovered more incidents of domestic violence, a groundswell of public horror pressurised councils to find properties they could rent.

In the early days these were frequently unwanted, run-down properties where the women and their children endured squalid conditions.

Campaigners helped to decorate them, appealing for furniture and utensils to try to establish safe, supportive and welcoming accommodation.

But dismissive attitudes towards domestic violence were slow to change and were not solely the preserve of men.

One woman, who subsequently spent nearly 20 years working for a refuge, recalled the first time she sought official help after suffering abuse.

Plucking up the courage to request a private conversation with a health visitor after a baby-weighing session, she explained her partner had beaten and physically hurt her.

The health visitor suggested: “Have you thought of a new lipstick or a hair-do?”

Today, there is acknowledgement and understanding of the need to protect and support women and their families when they are in danger.

Between April 2017 and the end of March this year, 404 referrals were received and 94 moved into Colchester and Tendring Women’s Refuge accommodation, while 310 were offered support in the community.

The exhibition You Can’t Beat a Woman opens at the Minories in Colchester High Street from June 18 to June 30.

A workshop led by Mell Robinson entitled A Woman’s Voice: 100 years of women’s empowerment takes place at Firstsite, Colchester, from 10am to 4pm on June 23.

Places are limited and tickets cost £10.50.

A free talk by Roxanne Ellis takes place at Firstsite on June 25, from 2pm to 3pm.

For more information, click here.